Originally published in Hill Times.
It’s been more than five years since I spoke to Zeinab, a young girl from Syria living in a tattered tent within a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon. But her story is seared into my memory, one of both paralyzing fear and burgeoning hope.
It’s Zeinab that I think of today when celebrating the G7’s historic commitment of $3.8 billion CAD- led by Prime Minister Trudeau- for girls’ education in crises. This win is for Zeinab and the millions of girls who will no longer lose out on learning when their lives are turned upside down by conflict or other crises.
In mid- 2012, during the earlier stages of the war in Syria, Zeinab was at her school desk listening to her teacher, when the explosion came. Suddenly, shards of glass were flying everywhere, her classmates screaming. Zeinab stayed frozen to her seat in fear as she watched her teacher fall, until she found the courage to flee and was forced to run past those who did not make it out.
By the time I met Zeinab, she had already spent months missing her friends, her teacher, and the stability and comfort of a familiar school environment. She also missed the opportunity to learn, and was afraid of what the future held without an education.
Over 75 million children currently living in conflict and crises are out of school globally and girls are 2.5 times more likely than boys to miss out on education. Zeinab’s desire to go to school is far from unique - countless children I’ve met through my humanitarian work have expressed this. In fact, research by Save the Children and others, including consultations with thousands of children has demonstrated that both girls and boys, as well as their families, consistently place education as a top priority among their needs in a crisis.
Unfortunately, they are not always listened to. Zeinab is a happy exception – the next time I saw her several weeks later, she was glowing with happiness. Through a referral into one of Save the Children’s few funded education projects, she was back in school learning, making new friends, and with a new found sense of hope for a brighter future. Wide smiles had replaced tears. Quite visibly, Zeinab was transformed by the opportunity of education.
That transformation is what stuck with me- the clear illustration of the change that can happen when we work together to listen to girls and boys, and respond to their needs.
And this is exactly what Canada and other G7 countries have done this weekend. World leaders- led by Canada - have demonstrated that they are listening, and that they are taking clear, decisive action to address what has been a critical gap for children for decades.
In 2006, Save the Children’s “Rewrite the Future” report found that children in conflict affected and fragile contexts received less than one-fifth of education aid despite representing almost half of the world’s population of out of school children. The report also highlighted that education received little over 1% of global funding to humanitarian crises. Where funding was directed to education, measures to increase enrolment were having little impact and the quality of education was appallingly low.
After more than ten years of campaigning on this - lobbying governments, donors and international agencies to recognize the crucial role education plays in protecting children in crises, and to increase educational resources for those children - this G7 announcement is cause for celebration. The G7 education initiative is arguably the biggest shift in donors’ willingness to finally prioritize what girls and boys themselves have been asking for - the chance to go to school.
As a Canadian and aid worker now based in Ottawa, this is a proud moment. Canada has listened to children, and the hundreds of thousands of global citizens who have campaigned for this change. Despite the current disaccord within the G7, Canada has stepped up with major funding and policy commitments, and a willingness to use valuable political capital to mobilize global support for this initiative. Canada has demonstrated real and meaningful action is achievable for those who need it most.